Unforeseen Forces on the Incident Scene

On multi-unit responses, the job of the incident commander (IC) will be largely impacted by the decision-making of the first-arriving company officer. In fact, the first officer’s actions are the stepping stones to successful incident management.

As the incident evolves, constant size-up is necessary to keep incident mitigation on track. Once the battalion chief assumes command, the nature of incident decision-making is affected by forces that the initial company officer may not have encountered or had to consider—and how the IC reacts to these additional forces is critical to the incident outcome. These forces can take the shape of incident expansion, unforeseen hardware failures, injuries and weather. Let’s take a look at excerpts from two near-miss reports to elaborate on some of these unforeseen forces.

Report #06-260
“Our department was conducting defensive fireground operations at a large commercial structure with 50% involvement. Thirty minutes into fireground operations, our area was placed under a severe thunderstorm warning, which was later upgraded to a tornado warning. The incident commander made the decision to suspend all fireground operations and advised all personnel to seek shelter in a business next door. Two firefighters were positioned in the platform. They exited by climbing down the platform’s ladder, leaving the ladder in the raised position. Within 30 seconds after the last firefighter had dismounted the ladder, the platform was struck by lightning.”

Report #07-1098
“Shortly after the initial stages of interior firefighting operations commenced to locate a reported missing child in a rambler-style dwelling that was approximately 50% involved upon arrival, the electrical service drop to the house sagged and then fell across the bedded steel aerial ladder of the truck company’s apparatus parked on Side A of the fire building. The initial IC noticed this hazard and immediately requested that the dispatcher broadcast a safety announcement on the tactical radio channel.”

One key task in every incident management operation is conducting constant risk analysis to minimize the impact of the unexpected. Trying to anticipate every unexpected occurrence on the scene can be maddening, especially when considering all the other decisions that have to be factored in. Seasoned ICs develop rhythms, mnemonics and brain-joggers, and they use tactical worksheets and other tools to keep them on track and situationally aware of what is happening. Staying focused on incident management can be difficult, because officers must deal with an avalanche of regulations, rules and personnel issues on each shift. One trick for staying focused: Take several moments every day to remember that at any minute, you could be on the way to an incident command opportunity.

In Closing
Arriving at the early moments of an incident that’s still spinning out of control is a norm for the fire service, and it’s critical that ICs do everything in their power to restore order, stop the chaos and minimize exposure to risk. True practitioners of command decision-making don’t let themselves relax until the last unit has left the scene. And the wisest and most astute ICs stay open to the input of others, keep their own senses in a heightened state of alert, and don’t waver when it comes to making a command decision. We always say that “seconds count”—and we should extend that refrain to include decisive action to get everybody home.

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